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Life after death: Organ donation links Alsea and Albany families

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Tyson Schreiber’s family feels his absence every day, but the pain is sharper on Christmas.

The 19-year-old rolled his truck on his way home to Alsea shortly after midnight Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012.

His stocking will go untouched today. He’ll miss out on his mom’s cooking and the presents under the tree.

“I usually make prime rib, and Tyson loved to eat,” his mother, Julie Schreiber, recalled. “Just being together as a family, having a good time, was wonderful. Christmas will never be the same without him.”

Since Tyson’s accident, Christmas has been different for the Ericks family, too.

Laura Ericks will instinctively reach for her injection pen before sitting down to Christmas dinner. When she remembers that she no longer needs insulin, she’ll think of Tyson and his family — and the best gift she ever received.

The 44-year-old Albany woman was granted a life-saving pancreas and kidney transplant because, in the grip of unimaginable shock and grief, Tyson’s family allowed their tragedy to be someone else’s miracle.

On New Year’s Day, that miracle will be celebrated and Tyson will be honored as his portrait rides on the Donate Life float in the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

Tyson’s smile

Whitney Schreiber took the lead last week in filling in a paint-by-number-style portrait of her big brother — carefully applying glue and sprinkling the appropriate shade of material on each part of the enlarged senior portrait. Julie took direction from her 19-year-old daughter as they teamed up to color in Tyson’s face using coffee grounds, corn meal, Cream of Wheat, cinnamon and rice flour.

They spent the day in a large warehouse in Pasadena, preparing Tyson’s “floragraph” to accompany that of 80 other deceased organ donors from across the country. The float will feature five giant lamps adorned by the portraits, symbolizing that their gifts of life shine a light on everyone.

The float — measuring 29 feet high, 17 feet wide and 55 feet long — was impressive, Julie said, and the visit to California exhausting.

“What a whirlwind of a trip,” she reflected. “It was hard, but I had Whitney.”

As for Whitney, she wasn’t satisfied with how Tyson’s mouth turned out in the portrait — it wasn’t easy, she said, to replicate his signature smile.

‘My rock’

Tyson is present all over the Schreibers’ home. Potted plants from his funeral sit beside the wood stove in the living room. His gigantic bull elk mount hangs in the dining room. Medals he won in high school sports — basketball, football, track — are displayed in the hallway beside his sister’s.

“My goal was to have more medals than him,” Whitney said. “I accomplished that by one before he passed away my senior year.”

Whitney said she’s a lot like her dad, Mark, in that she doesn’t like talking about Tyson’s death — it’s still too painful.

“He was my rock, my best friend. The person I looked up to, my hero — a big part of my life,” she said. “We did a lot together, and I miss that.”

Julie talks to her son every day — and she cries for him every day, too. She draws strength from a support system of family, friends and co-workers, but the pain is always present.

“I don’t think it will ever go away,” she said. “There’s a hole; we have a huge hole in our family without him.”

A tragic night

Julie and Mark got the call in the middle of the night after a friend drove up on the crash.

Their son had lost control of his pickup, hit the ditch and was thrown out as the truck rolled. He suffered severe head injuries and was en route to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center when they got the news.

On their way to the hospital, they were greeted by the sight of their son’s mangled vehicle blocking the road on Highway 34, three miles west of Philomath. Flashing lights and uniformed investigators flooded the scene. They were forced to backtrack two miles to get around the crash and proceed to the hospital.

The diagnosis was heartbreaking.

Even if their son survived brain surgery, he’d never again go on a family hunting trip, wakeboard behind their boat, play basketball with his friends or search Seeley Creek with his sister in their mom’s annual Easter treasure hunt. He wouldn’t finish his plumbing apprenticeship either, or even recognize his loved ones. Tyson was brain-dead.

“It was the worst thing ever,” Julie recalled. “The worst thing about it is as a mom you can’t help them; there was nothing I could do for him. Nothing. We had to make some tough decisions.”

Julie, Mark and Whitney decided, as a family, to take Tyson off life support. But first they consulted with a Donate Life representative, who walked them through the process of organ donation.

Julie remembered the conversation she had with Tyson when he checked the donor box on paperwork to obtain his provisional driver’s license at age 15.

“When he got his permit, he wanted to know what that was,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I’m a donor. It’s on my license; it’s your choice.’”

Another call

Two days after Julie and Mark Schreiber heard the worst news of their lives, Laura Ericks received her own life-changing phone call — she had a match.

She and her husband, Jeff, raced to Portland on Feb. 13, 2012, where a surgical team of specialists had begun to assemble. Laura waited as other organ recipients gathered and were prepped for surgery.

The following day she was wheeled into the operating room for a pancreas and kidney transplant.

She wasn’t the only person Tyson saved. His other kidney went to a 52-year-old woman, his liver to a 61-year-old man and his heart benefited a 15-year-old boy with a congenital heart defect.

“It was Valentine’s Day when that little boy got his heart,” Julie said.

She found solace in corresponding with the recipients through Donate Life, learning of the good that came from her son’s death.

Tyson also gave the gift of sight to two people — and his skin, tissue and tendons helped many more.

“It’s amazing what one person can do for so many people,” his sister, Whitney, said.

Kidney failure

Before her transplant, Laura took insulin injections with every meal and every snack, before bedtime and whenever her blood-sugar level was high. Because her pancreas didn’t produce its own insulin, which helps move sugar from the bloodstream to the body’s cells, she had to obsessively balance her intake of food, exercise and insulin, testing blood-sugar levels several times a day to ensure that they were within a healthy range.

Her diabetes was manageable until she was diagnosed with mucormycosis at the age of 25, one year after moving to Alaska from her native Portland. The rare fungal infection affects people with conditions that compromise their immune systems, such as diabetes. The survival rate is only one in three.

Doctors removed the infected tissue, taking out most of Ericks’ right thigh muscle, and then put her on a heavy dose of medication with side effects almost as harsh as the fungal infection itself. The treatment led to kidney failure and total loss of vision. By age 28, Ericks was blind and relying on dialysis to do the work of her kidneys.

She underwent her first transplant surgery the following year when her brother donated a kidney. That organ held up for 13 years until Ericks developed a secondary kidney disease, likely caused by complications from diabetes. She went on dialysis again in February 2011, relying on artificial means to filter waste from her blood — a process that involved changing out fluids in her abdomen four to six times per day through a surgically inserted catheter.

Don’t waste the gift

Tyson’s pancreas has eradicated Laura’s diabetes, dramatically improving her overall health and the health of her new kidney. She is off dialysis and no longer takes insulin. The regimen of post-transplant medications, which she will take her whole life, is a breeze compared to managing her pre-transplant medical needs.

But it wasn’t until she came home from a 51/2-mile hike a few weeks ago with her husband, Jeff, and their hunting dog, Sawyer, that she realized how much her health has improved. She hadn’t displayed that kind of energy in the entire time she has known her husband, nearly 20 years.

“I wasn’t even winded,” she said. “I’m not in tiptop physical condition, but now I can do so much more endurance-wise.”

Ever conscious that her joy is at one family’s expense, she vowed from day one not to waste her gift. The first year after the transplant, survivor’s guilt pushed her to be obsessively careful with her health and to fret over her kidney function numbers, blood-sugar levels and other measurements.

“I would feel guilty because a young, healthy (man) — he was 19 — died,” she said. “I had to be perfect because his organs were keeping me alive.”

An unexpected meeting

That sense of gratitude and responsibility compelled Laura to stop in Alsea on her way home from a Valentine’s weekend on the coast this year. She and her husband had driven through Alsea dozens of times since her transplant. Every time, she thought of Tyson and his family, especially his mother, with whom she had communicated through letters and one phone call.

But on this occasion — one day short of the anniversary of her surgery — she was ready to visit Tyson’s memorial.

“I said, ‘I need to find where he is resting,’” she recalled telling her husband. “I needed to express my gratitude in some way. I couldn’t go through there one more time without doing it.”

When they pulled into the cemetery, Jeff saw two women standing over a grave.

“I walked up; I called out their names,” Laura recalled. “I said, ‘I’m really sorry; I didn’t plan this, but ...’ And his mom instantly knew who I was.”

Julie and Whitney had brought flowers in an impromptu visit for Tyson’s “angel birthday,” the anniversary of his death.

“I was dumbfounded,” Julie said, “because here is this person standing there with my son’s organs, and she’s looking awesome.”

They spoke for at least an hour. Laura shared the story of her health struggles, and Julie spoke about her active, hard-working son who was taken too soon.

“The whole thing was amazing because nobody planned to be there — we were pulled there,” Laura said.

Laura and Julie haven’t spoken since, but thoughts of Tyson will be prevalent in both households today. On New Year’s Day, his presence will be felt by many others among the roses in Pasadena as the Donate Life float rolls by. It will be 15th in line.

Reporter ​Canda Fuqua can be reached at 541-758-9548 or canda.fuqua@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @CandaFuqua.

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